Monday, October 31, 2011

Learning through the Arts: Notes from Day 1 of Art, Science & the Brain

Today, I attended a couple of sessions at Art, Science & the Brain, a conference on learning organized by ArtsSmarts at the MaRS centre in Toronto.

Here’s some of the key findings that came out of the talks for me in terms of learning through the arts. I've also noted, where possible, the potential implications for contemporary-art institutions like public museums and galleries:

- Teacher-Institution collaboration is the bedrock of a successful arts education program. This was reinforced in several sessions. Institutions can’t just create a program and put it out there and expect it to be used when teachers’ curriculum or other key needs are unaddressed.

- Institutions may wish, when possible, to consider supporting arts in the classroom, not just bringing students into the gallery. The Guggenheim Museum retains more than a dozen resident artists to go out into NYC public schools on 20-week programs each year. The Guggenheim program also requires three school visits to the museum, but most of the work is done in-class. This is likely an extreme example for the Canadian funding context, but worth considering – how do we follow up with kids in the classroom?

- Arts education programs like ArtsSmarts can enhance positive student behaviours and decrease disruptive ones in the classroom to a statistically significant degree. This finding is supported by an ongoing ArtsSmarts research study in Quebec public schools which has found the outcome to be true over a period of 2 years thus far. This is especially true, say teachers, for students with so-called "special needs." Personally, I think this is a remarkable finding as making the classroom an open environment for learning would seem to be half the battle in overloaded classrooms these days.

- Institutions need to be willing to work on basic logistics as needed. Cambridge Galleries found that teachers were interested in bringing their students to the gallery, but teachers found it was difficult to find appropriate and affordable transportation to do so. Luckily, Cambridge’s Education Officer managed to make a link to the local transit authority, which was delighted to handle the transportation as the 9am to 2pm window was typically a low-use period for them. Kudos to the gallery for working with the community on this solution to an unglamorous (but persistent) problem.

- Lessons learned in a visual arts program can benefit grades in other subject areas, anecdotally speaking. In one presentation about ArtsSmarts’ Quebec research project, it was noted that one teacher saw her students’ English Language Arts grades increase after the ArtsSmarts program. What she concluded was that her students learned a lot about creation and revision from the visiting artist, who would have students take a closer look at their watercolour paintings and revise them 4 or 5 times over the course of 4 or 5 weeks. As a result, students became more comfortable with the idea of producing and editing written work—rather than just working on writing one perfect sentence, they would write five good pages, then trim it back.

- Engaging multiple media enhances chances of learner success. The Textile Museum offers many hands-on, touchable experiences in its gallery, but it also has opportunities for students to follow up online and post their own views on artifacts through its Social Fabric site.

- Though no statistics are able to show so far that ArtsSmarts programs enhance student engagement, there is much anecdotal information to that effect, particularly where so-called "special needs" learners are concerned. One teacher told me, “I’ve dealt with kids who haven’t been to school for five years. But when they’re in this program, they don’t miss a day.” Pretty remarkable.

Also a few questions seemed to linger in the air during the day. Here’s a couple of note:

- Are current educational materials at Canadian museums and public galleries too dumbed down? This seemed to be the view of a few people at the conference. They would like to see more respect for the viewer offered in interpretive materials and texts.

- How can arts educational projects be funded consistently? It’s worth noting that the Guggenheim’s Learning Through the Arts program actually wasn’t initiated by the museum, though the museum has now taken it on. Currently, funding for these types of initiatives seems to be a patchwork, with more and more funding tied to “it better be good for the economy” outcomes.

- Is a conference of this sort too wide-ranging? Perhaps attendees would benefit from more indepth approaches to the arts or science or the brain, rather than all three.

- How is it that education has gone from being a core element of museums and public galleries to being a separate department, often with a separate space within the museum or gallery? How can the educational mandate of institutions be better integrated with their everyday activities and spaces?

- Are arts education programs such as ArtsSmarts most likely to be taken up by teachers who have high levels of student engagement in their classrooms already? Is there a temptation to test out these types of programs in classrooms that, in a way, need them the least, because a "good" class will better guarantee a "good" research outcome?

I hope to hit up a couple more sessions tomorrow and to post more notes then. For more information about the conference visit

(Image of an ArtsSmarts project from

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

It’s about time: ROM reduces admission fees to semi-reasonable levels

This morning, the Royal Ontario Museum is officially announcing that they are reducing their admission fees, which, until this announcement, were the most exorbitant in Canada and among the most expensive in the world.

The general admission fees are dropping to $15 for adults [previously $24], to $13.50 for seniors and students [previously $21] and to $12 for children over the age of 3 [previously $16].

As any frequent reader of my work would likely suspect, my reaction to this news is generally positive. Admission fees and affordability at museums has been an axe I like to grind, and this is a big step in the right direction. The adult admission fee has dropped by a third, and is finally almost in that movie-ticket ballpark I’ve recommended as a maximum in the past.

At the same time, those who care about museum access might also see some cause for concern in this announcement. As part of these changes, the ROM is eliminating its two free hours per week, which were Wednesdays from 3:30 to 5:30pm. (Inconvenient and tokenistic as a time slot, I’ll admit. But my preference in terms of these announcement would have been to see these hours expanded and moved to an evening during the week.)

On the more good-newsy front, the ROM is at least maintaining cheaper hours on Friday from 4 to 8pm, with admission fees during that time dropping to $9 for adults (previously $12), $8 for seniors/students (previously $10.50), and $6 for children (previously $8).

Yesterday, ROM Director and CEO Janet Carding chatted with me on the phone about this change to admission fees. Our edited exchange is printed below.

Q The ROM has said for years that there’s no money in the budget to reduce admission fees. Where did the money come from to do this?

A Well what we’ve done over the last few months as part of our strategic plan is we spoke to people who hadn’t visited us before or visited us in a while. And what we were hearing then was that the price was too expensive for people. We felt we needed to make a change, and people said to us that if we had a lower entrance price, more of us would come. We’ve reduced the [adult admission price] to $15 and we think the cost of doing that will be offset by the increased number of people who will come. I would rather have lots of people coming to see us at a lower admission fee than fewer people coming to see us at a higher admission fee.

Q How much of overall revenues do admission fees currently comprise?

A Well, last year 17% of our revenue was admissions. But that was including all of the admissions—admission to special exhibitions as well as to the permanent collection. What that doesn’t include is membership.

Q The ROM policies demand that the museum reduce economic barriers to the permanent collection to the greatest extent possible. Why not just make access to the permanent collection free and charge for temporary exhibitions, as many other museums do?

A Where we are right now, what we found is that we couldn’t afford making the permanent collection free without cutting temporary exhibitions. So it wasn’t a viable economic model.

It feels to me that my role is to create a museum that’s lively—that people have access to what we do. [At the same time,] I don’t want to reduce the quality of what we’re doing. I want to have more people coming.

Also, we found that even most of those visitors who were coming during our free hours were happy to pay something—they just felt $24 wasn’t the right amount. So we said, let’s make it cheaper for lots of people to come everyday.

Q And you eliminated free hours altogether. Why?

A We’re working on the basis that we’re going to be free to the people who need it to be free for them. So we’re increasing the number of tickets available in our access program by 50% to a total of 75,000.

Q Does that include distributing ROM passes at all Toronto library branches rather than just a few of them?

A No. We’ve focused on those areas that are particularly areas of need, the areas where people were least likely to be coming to the museum.

Q One thing I’ve found in researching this issue is that institutions often point to each other when setting fees. They say, “this fee is consistent with comparable institutions in the area.” So how do you expect this admissions fee change to impact structures at the AGO and the Ontario Science Centre and other museums in the area?

A Well the research that we did was for our visitors. We didn’t ask questions about other sites. I would expect everyone would be looking at it from the point of view of their audience. What I have done is I’ve made sure our colleagues knew [in advance] that we were making this announcement this week. So from my point of view it’s not about what’s right for everyone else, but what’s right for the ROM.

Q You came to the ROM from overseas museums [like the Australian Museum] where the admission fee structure was considerably more affordable. How did that affect your approach to the ROM’s admission fees?

A When I arrived, I knew that we were an expensive museum to visit compared some other museums. But what I wanted to understand was what audiences here felt.

The research we’ve done over the last few months has been helpful in working out what we need to be. And my interest is in being the best museum we can be.

To me, this is the first step in what I’d like to do over the next 3 to 5 years. When we get to 2014, [the ROM’s centenary year], I’d like people to being seeing the ROM as an essential destination… and affordability is a key part of that. So it’s about what’s right for the people here in Toronto and Ontario.

Q How much did the Ontario government recommendation of last year—that the ROM improve its economic access—affect this change of approach on admission fees?

A Well, we did a whole series of things in terms of preparing for that committee, and that included taking a look at whether our access program was working. I think one of the reasons we’re increasing the number of [access program] tickets to 75,000 is we feel that’s actually working. But we’re constantly looking for new partners to help us reach new audiences. So we’re delighted to work at the YMCA and the YWCA, for example. So I think preparation for the committee helped us.


A few more of my thoughts on this development:

- I’m all for museums staying financially solvent, but when will they stop treating the public as a customer and start treating them as a shareholder or client? The ROM’s funding is still 50% government grants, and it remains an agency of the provincial government. This admission fee drop is a big step in the right direction, but the elimination of free hours is not a good precedent to set in terms of a collection held in the public trust.

- I am wondering, as indicated in the Q&A, how other museums in the area might react to this. My ideal outcome would be that they reduce their fees as well. We’ll see what happens. I can also imagine them being very upset by this announcement from an internal perspective, since it does put pressure on them to reduce fees they may not feel ready to reduce yet.

- I would like to see museums, strangely, become a bit more self-interested on this front. When Toronto councilors threatened to shut local libraries, there were hundreds of people who turned up at city council to protest and thousands more who signed petitions online. Citizens feel that libraries, quite rightly, are theirs, because they can access them at almost any hour for free and they experience them as providing a vital public service. Because museums charge such high admission fees (and yes, $15 is still a lot to many Torontonians and Ontarians), they forego a large amount of that kind of popular emotional support.

- Also, I still don’t understand why the ROM didn’t at least set the fees at movie prices. In terms of market, if I can pay 10 to 12 bucks and go see a multimillion dollar production with a compelling narrative and emotional appeal (okay, yes, I recently saw Moneyball) that could, in marketing terms, well outshine paying $15 to see artifacts for which no narrative or context is necessarily provided. (I write this as an obvious narrative junkie, but I know I’m not alone in that prediliction.)

- Overall, just to underline, I'm pleasantly surprised by this announcement. A big step in the right direction. But still lots of work to be done!

(Image of the ROM from Design Lines Magazine)

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Innocence Lost: Kurelek-related Q&A out in today's National Post

I heart William Kurelek. And I'm very, very, very excited about the first survey in 30 years about him, which recently opened at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

It's accompanied by a terrific website, -- please do take a look at that. (I'd love to see more exhibition websites like it from Canadian museums. Very comprehensive but also navigable and with many artwork reproductions.)

And lucky for me, the show is travelling to the Art Gallery of Hamilton in the coming year, so I'll also get to see it in person. (It will also be going to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria too.)

Andrew Kear, curator of historical Canadian at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, chatted with me generously on the phone about this new Kurelek show earlier this month. The condensed Q&A version is out in today's National Post print edition. An excerpt:

Q Many Canadians know Kurelek through his sweet, nostalgic books. But this show reveals his bloody, apocalyptic works. Why?

A One thing I think the exhibition does—and people may or may not appreciate this!—is that it removes the veil of innocence that covers a lot of the Prairie Boy’s Winter kind of work. I think you can’t return to those bucolic, nostalgic scenes with the same eye after you’ve seen paintings like This is the Nemesis. You start seeing an edge of underlying discomfort.

Q Where does that edge come from?

A Kurelek was concerned with nostalgia—he painted largely from memory. But his view of childhood was tempered by his experiences growing up. He was socially awkward to begin with. Then, he spoke Ukrainian for the first seven years of his life, which put a bulls-eye on his back when he went to a school in Manitoba where most of the students were English and Scottish. The Ku Klux Klan was active on the prairies through the 1920s, and his own father faced racism. So his view of childhood was not as sentimental as it may first appear.

A few Toronto-centric notes on Kurelek: he lived on Balsam Avenue in the Beaches neighbourhood for the latter part of his life and early in his career on Huron Street closer to U of T. While living on Huron, he created his Passion of St. Matthew series, and, because he was low on cash, sometimes traded paintings and odd jobs for his rent. Here's another snippet from the interview that relates to Toronto:

Q Many Toronto artists in the 1970s refused to visit Kurelek exhibitions because of his overt social conservatism. How did that affect him?

A Though Kurelek kept up a gregarious correspondence with various people, he was extremely socially set apart. It wasn’t just that his work was distinct from Robert Markle’s or Harold Town’s or Michael Snow’s. He didn’t out to the jazz clubs on Yonge Street or do the whole Yorkville scene. Partly that was because of his social conservatism, but also because he remained very awkward. He made it well known that he had a problem with Markle’s lascivious nude paintings. And while he won praise from some critics, like Robert Fulford, there were others, like Harry Malcolmson, he had famous controversies with. The interesting thing is that critics couldn’t not talk about him—even though they knew they were being preached at, and, of course, resented that.

For more, please check out today's print edition of the Post.

(Image: William Kurelek, Polish-Irish Fight, 1977. Courtesy the Art Gallery of Hamilton)

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Friday, October 21, 2011

Art Markets and Stock Markets: Another RBC Q&A out in Today's Post

I'm always being prompted to think about new things on the job--things that are new to me, anyway.

In chatting with RBC curator Robin Anthony this week, it finally came into my full consciousness that painting may not only be a safe market choice for private art collectors--it also could be considered a safe market choice for museums in terms of selling tickets to exhibitions and getting viewers through the door.

Here's an excerpt from our conversation, out in today's National Post:

Q Canada's biggest commercial art fair, Art Toronto, kicks off next week. What are you expecting to see there in terms of the market for these [RBC CPC finalists] and other artists?

A Having just come back from Frieze Art Fair in London, what we noticed was that most of the art dealers took a fairly conservative approach. There was a very noticeable amount of painting as opposed to photography or video. It may also be coincidental with that [Tate] Richter retrospective and with the just-opened Group of Seven show at Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, which RBC was also involved with. My prediction at Art Toronto is that many of the booths will be exhibiting painting and perhaps take a little bit of a conservative approach, so that it will be work that's of a scale and size appropriate for private collectors.

Q Don't expect to see any massive murals for sale soon, then?

A Probably not as much as we've seen in the past. I think caution from the financial markets does transfer over into the art markets, but at the same time art offers people the chance to look at other vehicles of investment [besides stocks and bonds].

For more of Anthony's advice to collectors and artists in this tough market, read on at the Post.

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Just Because

Can't get this song out of my head this morning!

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Monday, October 17, 2011

Time for Art: Patrick Bernatchez exhibits 1000-year Wristwatch in Montreal

Why do I need Dave Dyment's A Drink to Us When We're Both Dead—that is, a bottle of 100-year-aged scotch to be released in 2018—to remind me of my own mortality when Patrick Bernatchez's BW Project—a wristwatch that makes one revolution every thousand years—is about to debut in Montreal at Galerie de l'UQAM?

Here's an excerpt from Bernatchez's website about the project:

BW consists of a wristwatch with a mechanism and form that have been created entirely from scratch. This object, which appears to be quite simple at first glance, proposes a different reading of time and immerses one in a more abstract measurement scale. The BW display is made up of a single hand that will take a thousand years to complete a full revolution....

The BW (BlackWatch) was designed and crafted in collaboration with Roman Winiger a renowned Swiss watchmaker. The works title BW is an initialized form of the watch itself and the respective surname initials of the artist and watchmaker.

You know what is dumb about my reaction to projects like this? There's always some nitpicking part of me that goes "Um, well, how are we sure it's going to actually happen? How will we know the watch won't break down or something?"

With Dyment's project, the 100-year timeline makes me think it's a little more plausible to execute. With a 1000-year timeline like Bernatchez's my sense of pragmatism starts to fail. But I guess that's probably the point! There's part of me that (incorrectly) thinks I can plausibly look 100 years into the future. 1000 years, not so much. Good luck, little watch!

Read on here for more info about Bernatchez's project and here for more info about his Montreal show, opening this Friday.

(Video of Bernatchez's watch from his website)

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

What I learned from the New OAC Arts Engagement Study

Today, the Ontario Arts Council released the results of its latest arts engagement study. You can read the summary here and the full report here.

Here's what I found interesting in the study results:
  • Almost all Ontarians could cite at least one arts activity that they’d like to do more frequently in the future - and the number-one pick for arts activity they'd like to do more frequently was to "Paint, draw or make other original art." So to me it seems important that art institutions need get involved in helping adults and children actually engage in making art. This includes partnering with the school system to get kids making art at a young age.
  • Overall, the home is the predominant setting for engaging in music (89%), dance (51%) and visual arts (71%) activities. This is consistent with other research suggesting that the home is the foundational setting for arts activities of all sorts. So how can art museums and galleries reach into homes? Maybe by getting on board with online exhibitions as an endeavour that's just as seriously undertaken as producing beautiful catalogues that few people will purchase and fewer, read? Or, um, something?
  • Half of Ontarians visit art museums and galleries at some level, although half of all activity around museums is held within only 20% of the population. This is the steepest audience-distribution relationship among all arts activities in the study! To me, this also goes a long way to demonstrating how intimidating it might be for people not in that 20% to actually visit art museums and galleries -- could be easy to feel like an outsider.
  • As might be expected, ‘watch movies on computer, TV or DVD’ is by far the most prevalent of all visual arts, crafts and film activities, with 61% doing it ‘at least once a week,’ and another 28% ‘at least once a month.’ Somehow, this made me wonder why watching TV didn't count as a cultural activity in itself. There are a lot of crap movies out there, as well as some good TV. Just sayin'.
  • Reading in general exhibits the highest frequency and salience index scores overall. Salience for ‘accessing books through a local library’ is higher than frequency, suggesting that although not typically thought of as a creative act, going to the library to seek out reading material is a highly valued activity. The study suggests that, as a result, libraries are "a natural partner for arts organizations to increase outreach and expand programming." To this, I say, word. It's time for the NGC, the AGO, the ROM, the Power Plant and other publicly funded galleries to start considering how they can reach out through library branches. I've seen some workshops in the past, but I feel like more work is needed.
  • 95% of Ontarians said they would like to be doing more arts activities than they are doing now. Well, that's kind of heartwarming. And I also like that the study has included "going out dancing" as an arts activity. I'd like to do more of that too.

(Generic I'm-learning-from-stats image via Hope for the Sold)

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I'm Not Okay, You're Not Okay: Humanity Lookin' Dismal (yet Compelling) at Current U of T Shows

Mon dieu! Homo sapiens doesn't come off well in a couple of University of Toronto shows this season. Still, I kinda liked them. I discuss this conflicted effect in my latest reviews for the National Post, which came out on Saturday. An excerpt:

1. Models for Taking Part at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery
7 Hart House Circle, to Dec. 11
Humanity doesn’t come off well in Models for Taking Part. This is especially the case when considering two of the exhibition’s major works: Artur Zmijewski’s Democracies and Renzo Martens’ Episode III: Enjoy Poverty. Zmijewski documents protests and other mass events such as state funerals, sports rallies and war reenactments — mostly in his home country of Poland, but also in France, Germany, Israel and Palestine. Arrayed over several screens in a single room, Zmijewski’s videos are overwhelming, whether sonically (as reenactment gunshots ring out alongside requiem orchestrations), visually (as burning buildings lit by the Black Bloc meet “Feminazi” signs at an anti-abortion protest and national flags, well, everywhere), or psychologically (as each group’s attempt at “outreach” only seems to entrench disparate positions in its actors and bystanders). As a whole, Democracies — a work labelled, supposedly, for one of the greatest inventions of humankind — makes prospects for peace and understanding seem grim. This effect is deepened in Martens’ feature film, which traces a Congo journey exposing layers of injustice in a) global economies; b) global media; c) global aid organizations; and d) global art-making. No one, the artist included, seems to escape the film’s cynical gaze. Heartbreaking moments, like the deaths of malnourished children, take place very nearly onscreen, while stomach-turning scenes — like Martens suggesting that the Congolese should just learn to “enjoy poverty” because it makes the rest of the world feel noble — provide little relief. Nonetheless, both these works remain strangely compelling for their no-holds-barred approach to our species’ fascistic, hooliganistic and narcissistic tendencies. It’s also worth noting that the ethical implications of these works could be up for discussion at a special curator talk Oct. 11, at 6 p.m., and a panel on Oct. 12, at 6 p.m.

For details on Mark Boulos at the Coach House Institute and (the considerably more gentle) Angela Grauerholz show @ UTAC, read on at the National Post's Posted Toronto blog.

Also just FYI, this is the last At the Galleries column the Post will be running. As of October 15, they're overhauling their Toronto section, with the column eliminated as a result. I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to do the column over the past three years or so, as I understand it's a privilege to have that kind of mass-media platform. But I'm also glad that individual art shows may have the opportunity to get longer or more in-depth treatments in future, and that a greater range of critical voices will be represented.

(Still from Artur Zmijewski's Democracies via the Barnicke Gallery)

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Monday, October 3, 2011

Prize Pick: Q&A with RBC Painting Competition Winner Rebecca Brewer out in Today's Post

Who says art doesn’t pay? Vancouverite Rebecca Brewer, announced as the $25,000 winner of the RBC Canadian Painting Competition last Tuesday, may need to ponder that question sooner rather than later. But first, she answered a few queries from me over the phone about Canadian guilt, palette psychology and the best canvas ever. The condensed Q&A is out in today's National Post. An excerpt:

Q Some say that in art school, there’s the painters… and then there’s everybody else. What do you think?

A My experiences have confirmed that many times. When I did my undergrad, I studied with two teachers; one was a sculptor and one was a painter. I’d always secretly be doing painting behind my sculpture class’ back, and vice versa. Now I’m doing my MFA at Bard College, and the painting department is definitely its own beast.

Q Bard has strong ties to the New York City art world. How important is it to be connected to New York when building a painting career?

A I think painting never died in New York, in a way. I feel really affirmed there compared to what my experience was in Vancouver. I think that Vancouver has started to blossom in terms of painting, but it’s only been over the past 5 years that I’ve noticed that happening. I feel I’m part of something much bigger since being at Bard. I really appreciate Canadian painting culture, but I’m pretty awestruck right now by the scope that there is in New York.

Q What are the differences between Canadian and American painting?

A I think it’s difficult to qualify statements about that! In Vancouver, for a while, there was the shadow of photoconceptualism and conceptual art practices. So conceptual painting seemed the natural fit, but somehow that created a bit of a backlash. I just feel it’s a lot less tortured in the States. When I interviewed at Bard, they asked me what the deal was with this big chip on my shoulder, and then the chair of the department said, “Everyone, remember, Rebecca’s from Vancouver!”—meaning, I’m going to have a chip on my shoulder from my experiences of coming up among the sort of naysayers who believe that painting is irrelevant and outmoded.

I should say that Brewer is currently working in both Vancouver and New York, and did clarify later that she feels lucky to enjoy support in both communities.

To find out more about the inspiration for Brewer's winning work, Beuys painting, and learn about her favourite painting of all time, you can read on in the print edition of today's National Post or online at the Post's website.

And many thanks to my fellow NSCAD alumnus Marco D'Andrea for his observations about painters and art school and prompting my own reflections on this matter. He's currently doing a degree at the University of Guelph if you'd like to track him down.

(Image of Rebecca Brewer's Beuys painting from

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